As the fall of Saigon grew close, the city went into chaos. I saw none of it because I and my two communicators had moved out of our residences and were staying 24 hours a day in our office suite at Tan Son Nhat on the northern edge of the city. But we read press reports and embassy cables. The following passage from Last of the Annamese quotes, to the best of my memory, one such cable:
“The panic is spreading. Take a look at this.”
[Troiano handed Chuck] an Embassy cable, date time group of an hour ago. “Looting has started in Saigon. Boutiques on Tu Do Street have been vandalized, display windows smashed. Shoe stores on Le Thanh Ton, the street of shoes, report that hooligans, referred to as ‘cowboys,’ and renegade soldiers are forcing shopkeepers to give up their goods. Merchants specializing in televisions and stereos have been stripped of their wares.”
Chuck handed the cable back to Troiano. “And so it begins. The end of An Nam.”
Troiano’s bloodshot eyes looked up at Chuck.
“An Nam, sir. The old name for Vietnam. It means ‘peace in the south.’”
I’ve written in this blog about the South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Thanh, one of the three principal characters in Last of the Annamese. Reviewers of the book and ordinary readers are more taken with Thanh than with the other characters.
Maybe there’s justice in that. Thanh is really the soul of the story. He insists that he Annamese, not Vietnamese—native to the core of his people, better described as peace makers (from An Nam, “peace in the south”) than troublemakers (from Viet Nam, “troublemakers in the south”). He is the shaper of the tale, the man who stands serene as his country crumbles about him.
I can’t claim the credit for inventing Thanh. He came to me, as all my characters do, fully formed. At first he kept parts of himself hidden from me. He allowed me to know his history as a monk, then a warrior, slowly as I wrote about him. When I wanted him to be angry with Tuyet for her betrayal, he instead found peace from within himself. When I tried to write him as showing strength after the fall of Phuoc Binh, he became despondent, then had to restore himself to greater strength through his own internal harmony.
As irrational as it sounds, I don’t feel like I created Thanh. Rather, he revealed himself to me at his own pace and in his own way. He is a far greater man than I could ever hope to be. And he is more real to me than most of the men I know.
I’ve confused my readers. I’ve said that I safely evacuated all 43 men working for me before the North Vietnamese took Saigon in April 1975. That’s true. At other times, I mentioned getting 41 out. The difference is that two of my guys, Bob Hartley and Gary Hickman, volunteered to stay with me through the attack on the city. Before that, I got 41 men and all the families out safely. The three of us—Bob, Gary, and me—were still there when the attack began on 28 April. We were shelled throughout the night, the building next door to us blew up, and two Marine guards at our gate were killed. Bob and Gary were evacuated by helicopter on the afternoon of 29 April. That added up to 43 guys out. I went out that night under fire.
A little past the middle of book, Last of the Annamese records the death of a French journalist, shot to death by the Saigon police. It was one sign of the panic that was overtaking Saigon as the end approached.
As I piece together the story of what happened, Paul Leandri, a journalist for Agence France Presse, was questioned by the Saigon police on 14 March 1975 about a story he had published on the fall of Ban Me Thuot to the North Vietnamese. As he was leaving police headquarters, he was shot in the head and killed instantly after “refusing orders to stop.” The police were trying to find out the sources he used for his story on the battle in the highlands.
That battle forms an important part of the story of Last of the Annamese. The South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Thanh takes Chuck Griffin with him on a visit to the highlands. Their last stop is Ban Me Thuot where both know that the North Vietnamese are about to attack. They escape under fire by plane from the runway as the North Vietnamese onslaught begins.
That episode is based on my own experience travelling with a South Vietnamese general. We took off in his C-47 from Ban Me Thuot just as the airstrip came under fire. The town fell with a day or two, followed by the whole of the northern half of South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese then turned their eyes south to Saigon which fell a month and a half later.
Leandri’s death was one of many signs that the order imposed by the South Vietnamese was collapsing. I remember at the time, having just returned from the trip to Ban Me Thuot, thinking that his killing was one more indication that South Vietnam’s days were numbered.
The title of my most recent novel is deliberately ambiguous. It could be understood to be the end of the Annamese as a nation, or it could refer to that nation’s last surviving native. I intended both meanings.
As of Last of the Annamese progresses, the definition of “Annamese” becomes clear. The reader learns that Thanh, the South Vietnamese Marine colonel at the heart of the story, dislikes “Vietnam,” a name conferred millennia ago by the Chinese which means “troublemakers in the south.” He prefers the name “An Nam,” which means “peace in the south.” An Nam was one of the original names for the country now known as Vietnam, and in English, a resident of An Nam is an Annamese.
As the final conquest of South Vietnam by the north comes closer, the end of the Annamese as a people is imminent. Thanh considers himself the last of the Annamese in the sense of being the last of his race. All his loyal brethren have fled or been killed or have gone over to the North Vietnamese. But Thanh has a son, Thu, six years old. He will survive Thanh in the long run. Toward the end of the book, Thu’s mother, Tuyet, refers to Thu as the last of the Annamese. She understands that Thu will end up in the United States and will grow up as an American. That doesn’t alter the fact that he, in her view, will be the last surviving member of his nationality.
So “last of the Annamese” has two meanings. Both are fulfilled by the end of the story.
Toward the end of Last of the Annamese, as the attack on Saigon begins on 26 April 1975, Chuck, Sparky, and Colonel Troiano are caught in their office at Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of Saigon, where they were holed up. Here’s the text from the beginning of chapter 19:
It started Saturday morning. Reports swamped the comms center. Long Binh was under attack, and Ba Ria fell. North Vietnamese shelling of Bien Hoa was low thunder that shook the floor. The final assault was under way. To get around the Ambassador’s edict that no one was to be evacuated, Troiano sent most of the remaining personnel out of country by air on trumped-up “temporary duty” missions. The Intelligence Branch, the comms center, and the tank were now manned by five people—two comms techs who’d volunteered to stay to the end, Chuck, Sparky, and Troiano. “We’re just here to turn off the lights when the Ambassador gives us permission to leave,” Troiano told Chuck. They adopted the eight-sixteen rule—eight hours of sleep, sixteen hours of work on rotating shifts, so that two people would man the tank at all times. Sparky made a food run, found out that the snack bar was deserted.
That description matches what really happened to me. Most of my subordinates were already gone, sent out the country on phony temporary duty, home leave, or vacation—all to get around the ambassador’s no-evacuation order. By the next day, Sunday, 27 April, we were down to three of us, me and two communicators who had volunteered to stay through attack. We had already been on the eight-sixteen rule but switched to a 24-hour schedule with two hour breaks for one man while the other two worked.
I’ll never forget or stop honoring the two men who agreed to remain during the attack. Bob Hartley and Gary Hickman showed enormous courage. They stayed calm in the face of disaster, knowing they could be killed in the next barrage. They worked harder than I had any right to expect, doing between them the job 16 men had done when we were at full strength. When they were extracted by helicopter on the afternoon of 29 April, I knew my work in Vietnam was finished.
The April issue of the Howard County Beacon is out. It features a cover story on me and Last of the Annamese. You can view it on the Howard County Beacon web site.
. . . but I found it hard to read.
Jim Bohannon’s interview of me from last night is now up on his podcast page. Click on the 3-20 podcast. The interview starts at about 39 minutes into the broadcast—you can click to find that spot. The URL is:
I invite comments.